Female prostitutes constitute the largest proportion of all prostitutes but, unlike male prostitutes, they are not usually independent agents, often being controlled, blackmailed, intimidated, and brutally treated by pimps or organized crime. Female prostitution gives rise to a trade in women and children who may be sold to brothels or as concubines. In certain countries prostitution is a crime and may depend on the corruption or the turning of a blind eye by the authorities. In other countries it may be legalized and prostitutes must be registered and submit to regular medical examinations for venereal disease; this registration may make it more difficult for them to return to normal life if they wish to do so.
Female prostitution was a religious duty in the ancient civilizations of Babylon, Cyprus and among the Phoenicians and in parts of western Asia. It was a means of earning a dowry in certain other ancient cultures. Female prostitution existed in the Greek and Roman civilizations. In the Middle Ages prostitutes were tolerated and efforts made by the Church to rehabilitate them. After the Renaissance, the relative rise in women's status as a result of humanism led to increasing restrictions, which became more organized and better enforced with the creation of the police in the 19th century. Scholars disagree about the origin of prostitution in Thailand, one of the highest rates in the world. Some believe it has its roots in the Buddhist view of women as carnal and physical. Others link it to the development of international trade in Thailand in the 19th century. All agree that the most important modern influence was the Vietnam War.
Prostitution has tended to increase at times in which the role of women was changing. Thus, the industrial revolution in the 19th century was accompanied by a marked increase in prostitution. This was due, in part, to the dislocation of large numbers of women who moved from rural, agricultural communities to urban, industrial cities. When they could not obtain jobs in the new factories, significant numbers of them were forced to turn to prostitution for survival. A second factor was that women who left their families to work in factories were considered to be immoral, and they were subject to a good deal of sexual harassment at work. Once they were stigmatized for leaving home, the barriers to their becoming involved in prostitution were reduced. A similar pattern can be seen in the newly industrializing nations today, especially countries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.
For most of history, prostitution has been a stigmatized profession, although it has rarely been prohibited. The status of prostitutes seems to have been tied directly to the general status of women: the more women, as a class, have been confined and treated as chattels, the freer prostitute women have been to work without official harassment. As non-prostitute women have achieved increasing independence, on the other hand, the prostitutes have been more restricted and condemned, often confined to segregated districts, or required to wear special clothing, for example.
In West Germany, there are 2.5 million visits to female prostitutes per day. According to a 1992 report, an average of 20 Burmese girls a day are sold across the border for around 17,000 baht. There are over 1,500 female prostitutes in Ranong alone, with thousands more in Bangkok.